Pam Miniati wants to bring the robot bartender to Tampa Bay.
The Florida-Israel Business Accelerator spotlighted the mechanical mixologist, created by a company called Cecilia.ai, at a virtual event in February, during which the Israeli company outlined some of its plans for expansion in Florida.
“You could see the technology, but they haven’t physically been here,” said Miniati, the Tampa-based accelerator’s co-executive director. “They actually have a few people over in Miami right now. So we’re trying to get that bartender here. It’s pretty amazing.”
Connecting Israeli startups to customers and investors in Florida is what the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator is all about. Founded in 2016, the group’s singular (and statewide) focus sets it apart from other local accelerators like Tampa Bay Wave, Embarc Collective or the Tampa Bay Innovation Center. While it works with and alongside those groups, its goal is helping Israeli companies find a foothold in Florida, particularly in the developing tech ecosystems in Tampa Bay, Miami and Orlando.
“They’re coming to us,” co-executive director Rakefet Bachur-Phillips said. “There’s a lot more awareness and interest in Florida, and specifically Tampa Bay, than we have ever seen before. Now we don’t really need to do a lot of outreach. Israelis have discovered Florida and are coming here, and we’re happy to support them.”
Over a recent Zoom interview, Miniati and Bachur-Phillips talked about the group’s evolution and future goals. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Do a lot of states have a direct-to-Israel startup pipeline?
Bachur-Phillips: I think it exists in other states, other cities, and for a good reason, because Israel is such a source of innovation in all different areas. Some states have realized that, and are trying to attract these companies to the area, because when they are successful and they scale, they can have a real good economic impact on the area. In Michigan, they’re focusing more on energy and automobiles and security. In Atlanta, they have some good collaborations with Coke and Verizon. Here in Florida, most recently, we’ve focused on agriculture technology. There’s so much innovation in agriculture coming from Israel. And then hospitality and tourism is something we’ve been focusing on this year, and will continue to do that as the No. 1 industry in Florida.
Have you gone to Israel since the pandemic?
Miniati: No, no.
Bachur-Phillips: We’d like to go and take a few key leaders from the Tampa Bay area. Jane Castor just recently came back, and we met with her soon after she returned. She’s interested in going back and taking some additional people to pitch Tampa Bay to them, and just learn from the ecosystem there and try and do some good matchmaking.
When it comes to recruiting businesses to Florida, is the focus on having businesses establish a presence in Florida, or on securing funding through Florida means?
Miniati: We for sure are focused on the economic development aspects of this. We have a couple of CEOs who relocated here, moved their families here, hired people here, opened a manufacturing plant here. It’s about economic impact, creating jobs, opening an office, hiring people, contributing to Tampa Bay and Floridawide ecosystem.
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So it’s more that than facilitating investors in these firms once they get here?
Miniati: All the companies that come here are looking for two things: they’re looking for customers, and they’re looking for investment. A lot of times investors don’t want to invest in an Israeli company unless they have local customers, and a lot of times you need local money to get local customers. Not only do you have to be willing to invest in tech, you have to be willing to invest in Israeli tech, and a lot of these companies are not headquartered in the U.S., nor are they going to headquarter in the U.S. So it’s challenging to find these dollars.
How closely are startups and investors on the other side of the globe watching the tech scene in Florida?
Bachur-Phillips: I think they’re looking more for where the investors are and the customers are, and where they have a foot in the door. They’ll go where their investors are, and if they’re in the Miami area, that’s where they’re going. Some of the hospitality companies we spoke to, they went to Miami because they know the restaurant and hotel industry there. They had some doors open for them and had successes, so they said, “OK, let’s stay here and see how much we can penetrate the market.” Customers and investment come first, they’ll go where that is, and then the support system is secondary.
Miniati: We talked to a company that already has an office in Fort Lauderdale, a surgical robotics company, and we said, “Why Florida?” He said, “Florida is the center for surgical robotics. There’s Boston, there’s New York, but it was obvious we needed to come here.” They paid attention to what was going on in their industry, where their customers are, where the expertise is, and it was an obvious choice to them.
The tourism and hospitality world doesn’t strike me as an obvious place for an entrepreneur to launch a startup. What problems are being solved right now by startups who populate that space?
Miniati: The real problem they seem to be having, no surprise, is labor shortages. How can they continue to maintain quality of service and meet the throughput that’s going on with such a shortage in labor? It’s robots that carry food to the tables and bus tables and clean tables. There’s a lot of online ordering that attaches to the delivery system, that gives you insights into everything that’s going on. There’s a lot going on with multiple kitchens and being able to place an order and have that optimized so it’s coming from the quickest location. Artificial intelligence to gain information about the customer is a really big area right now, and people are exploring that in all different ways. There’s actually a lot more than you’d think going on, and a lot of this stuff can be applied not just to food service, but other retail establishment — customer loyalty, customer habits, customer behavior, things like that.